SLVEC NEWS

Find the latest updates on all the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Counci's projects


In early June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) acquired an important new land parcel just upstream of the Baca National Wildlife Refuge (Refuge). A dense cluster of cottonwood trees lining North Crestone Creek, just across from the Crestone Baptist Church on Rd. T., easily identifies the property. Not only does the purchase expand the Refuge's area by another 150 acres, it also places the land's sensitive riparian habitat under the protection and sound management of the USFWS. With approximately 0.6 river miles of North Crestone Creek flowing through the land, the protection of this sensitive habitat will also ensure the continued health of riparian-dependent plant and animal life, such as willow and cottonwood trees, the yellow warbler, and Lewis’ woodpecker.


The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (SLVEC) is very pleased to hear of the new land acquisition, as we were key supporters in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000, which resulted in the creation of the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. We received congressional recognition for our unwavering support and will continue to support the Refuge management’s efforts to protect precious ecosystems in the SLV. This 150-acre Refuge addition is an example of greater land protection that becomes anchored through previous legislation, which can be further augmented to expand wildlife connectivity.Yes, good policy matters!


SLVEC wants to thank Refuge Manager Ron Garcia, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Jamie Ireland Estate (seller) and our local public officials for their vigilant support in helping to protect this essential stretch of land that includes critical riparian habitat.

Riparian habitats support a wide range of animal and plant species that depend on ample water supplies for their survival. As drought conditions have worsened in the San Luis Valley, these ecosystems have become especially stressed and vulnerable. Therefore, restoring riparian zones has become a top management priority for the Baca Refuge. Baca Refuge manager Ron Garcia explains that perhaps the most salient aspect of the new land purchase is the promise it holds for restoring riparian habitats both on and beyond the new parcel.


Although the USFWS has held water rights to the new property since their initial purchase of the Baca Refuge in the 2000s, effective restoration can now occur as management has easier access to the water supply. Riparian restoration will occur through carefully irrigating the adjacent wet meadows. Once the water is diverted, it slowly retreats back to the creekbed, hydrating riparian areas in the process. In many ways, this management strategy is mimicking the cycle of a healthy water table that once existed in the San Luis Valley. With drought conditions intensifying, Baca Refuge management has had to learn how to utilize what little water resources are available and to restore only the most sensitive and critical habitats.


Aside from the ecological significance of the new land purchase, the land also holds amazing recreational value. Located at the intersection of the town of Crestone, the Baca Grande Subdivision, the Crestone Charter School, Colorado College, and the Baca Refuge Visitor Center, a trail is planned to help connect these areas for hiking use. Eastern San Luis Valley Trails is in the process of creating a trail network that links these main community assets. The new land may become the area that connects the Baca Grande Subdivision to the town of Crestone. Before a trail could be created, extensive studying of the land would first need to take place to ensure that human activity would not compromise the health of the sensitive riparian habitat.


Managers at the Baca Refuge are immensely grateful for the opportunity to protect yet another important stretch of land. Ensuring the health of local wildlife, sensitive habitats, and building on community appreciation for wilderness are all wonderful aspects of the new land acquisition. SLVEC celebrates that another piece of San Luis Valley critical habitat will be managed and preserved for future generations to come.


Please consider becoming a member of “Friends of the Refuge.” They can always use dedicated volunteers who want to learn about conservation! The more eyes on protecting the landscape, the better! Learn more about Friends of the Refuges at: https://slvrefuges.org/, or contact: friendslvnwr@gmail.com, or Garcia, Ron J ron_j_garcia@fws.gov


To read more about the new land acquisition, consult the August 1 edition of The Crestone Eagle.


A plan to sell San Luis Valley (SLV) water to municipalities on the eastern slope, in the works since 2016, was officially announced by Sean Tonner of Renewable Water Resources (RWR), at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) meeting December 6th, 2018.

The plan outlined at the meeting would make available 22,000 acre feet of water per year for export from the northern SLV to the water poor cities on the eastern slope, along the Interstate (I-25) corridor, specifically Douglas County.


A version of this water transfer plan was presented to the Saguache County Commissioners in 2014 by the late Gary Boyce under the umbrella of an organization called Sustainable Water Resources. After Boyce’s death in March 2016 the organization remerged as Renewable Water Resources (RWR). Sean Tonner of RWR bought Boyce’s 11,500 acres of water holdings from his estate, known as Rancho Rosado.


RWR attorney Kevin Kinnear said the water which would come primarily from Saguache County, would be purchased for $2000 per acre foot, this price depending on both groundwater and surface water rights. Jerry Berry, who has farmed in Saguache County since 1996, is manager of RWR property. He said there are locals interested in selling their water. To sweeten the water sale, RWR is adding a fifty-million dollar community fund to the contract. RWR says this fund could be spent on everything from schools, to law enforcement, to conservation easements.


According to RWR’s plan, water would be pumped from the SLV with buyers paying for a (three foot in diameter) underground pipeline construction at an estimated cost of $550 to $600 million. The whole project, if it gains traction, would take about ten years to complete with the first five years dedicated to capitalizing the project. Tonner said RWR has been working on this project for four years and would like to file their paperwork in Division 3 Water Court sometime in 2019. (Recently they have added on a few more years, to 2022).


RGWCD Board President, Greg Higel said he questions if the 22,000 acre feet would be enough for thirsty eastern slope towns like Castle Rock and Aurora. Tonner said that buyers and sellers “are ok” with pipeline restrictions. The pipeline RWR is envisioning specify for the project cannot carry more water than the agreed upon 22,000 acre feet. RWR says it has held “numerous” community meetings in Saguache as well as “nearly one hundred” meetings across the SLV about the planned water sale. RGWCD Board member Bill McClure of Saguache said he was not aware of any community meetings about RWR’s plans in the area. Saguache County Commissioner, Tim Lovato said that RWR has not yet met with county commissioners about the water sale plan.


There were plans to sell water out of the SLV in the late 1980’s involving some Board members of the late Maurice Strong’s Arizona Land and Cattle Company, then First Colorado Corp, who eventually called themselves American Water Development, Incorporated (AWDI). The late Gary Boyce then picked up the gauntlet, after AWDI was defeated in a six week Water Court Case in 1992 and renamed the trans- basin water project, Stockmen’s Water. Throughout most of the 1990’s, Boyce’s plan surfaced in different forms, but mostly in the public policy arena, culminating with two ballot initiatives that were launched in the state of Colorado in 1998 designed to cripple the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and water users of the San Luis Valley. Citizens worked diligently throughout the Valley to inform Colorado voters of the Initiatives true intention, to cripple water users, as it was masquerading as an education bill. The voters of Colorado defeated the two ballot initiatives with a 70% majority.

Valley residents then looked towards a long term solution. A bi-partisan effort emerged to redirect the water diversion attempts that were taking place on the then Luis Maria Baca Grant #4 ranch and in 18 months pushed through legislation that culminated with the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Act of 2000, (creating the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Baca National Wildlife Refuge and Baca Mountain Tract). The federal government purchased the approximately fifty-square-mile Ranch for $33 million, placing the Baca Ranch into public hands, thereby removing the temptation of selling off private water rights out of the valley.

The National Park has since become a sustainable economic anchor, as opposed to a boom and bust cycle, creating over 400 jobs and bringing a cumulative impact of over $36 million/year to the San Luis Valley region. The Park estimates that over half a million visitors toured during the 2018 season. The investment made in 2000 has greatly enriched the American public portfolio and future generations legacy.

“RWR’s plan looks exactly like what we have seen in the past” says Christine Canaly, Director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, who was very active in opposing the trans-basin water diversion attempts in the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s. “The first time I met Alex Crutchfield, the Vice-President of American Water Development, Inc., he said I could sit on a Board and figure out how to spend all the millions they would make pumping water out of here, on local community projects. My perspective has not changed, as I said to Crutchfield then ‘what good is this place without the water?’ Especially now, we are in severe drought conditions, what part of climate change and over-appropriation is RWR not understanding?”

SAN LUIS VALLEY ECOSYSTEM COUNCIL

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